Everyone should explore Japan at least once in their lifetime. Japan has thousands of hidden gems and is a year-round destination. You can visit its ski resorts in winter or the beautiful coastline in summer. And, whatever the season, Japan’s cities are always ready to welcome you with fascinating attractions, delicious street food, and bucket loads of culture.
Explore Japan: The Top Cities in Japan
When you think of cities in Japan, it’s safe to say that Tokyo will be in your top three. As the capital, Tokyo is one of the major Japanese cities and attracts millions of tourists a year. It is also the largest city in Japan, with an estimated population of around 14 million people.
Think busy streets, fast-paced entertainment, and flashing neon lights – Tokyo is hectic but exciting. Tokyo is where to visit if you want to be right in the thick of all the action, with plenty of museums to tour, shopping to bag, and fun to be had. The sheer size of the city is exciting in itself.
So, where do you begin? What are the best things to do in Tokyo? Well, after visiting the city a few times we suggest starting with Tokyo Tower. Tokyo Tower may look familiar, and it should be. The tower was heavily inspired by the Eiffel Tower. In fact, the only difference is that Tokyo Tower is 333 meters tall and red and white.
Heading to the top of the tower, you can learn about Tokyo’s architectural history en route, finishing with a spectacular view of the beautiful city below. Nearby, there’s also Tokyo Skytree which stands at a dizzying 634 meters and is the tallest tower in the world – so be prepared to spend at least a few hours amongst the clouds.
To appreciate Tokyo’s atmosphere on the ground, head to Golden Gai for a downtown vibe or Shibuya Crossing for a CBD experience. Allow time to visit museums like the Mori Art Museum, Japan Olympic Museum, and NHL Museum of Broadcasting.
Osaka is another one of Japan’s large cities. Osaka has a strong character, and the port city has a commercial soul with lots going on at all hours of day and night. There’s always street food to taste, a bar to hop to, and attractions to visit. Osaka is a great place to visit if you love a mixture of partying, relaxing, and sightseeing. The city has lots of personality and a balance of everything – like a compromise with no sacrifice.
To appreciate the history of Osaka, a trip to Osaka Castle should be on your itinerary. The 16th-century castle is surrounded by cherry trees and a moat, and Osaka Castle is one of the prettiest places to visit in the city. While, if you want a day of light-hearted fun, there’s Universal Studios Japan to explore. The theme park has Hollywood-themed rides, and it’s conveniently located just outside the center of Osaka.
Finally, Osaka is the famous home of one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines. Sumiyoshi Taisha is a popular Shinto shrine to visit – on tourism or religious grounds. We recommend visiting to fully experience Japan’s beautiful religious culture.
Tokyo might be the capital today, but Kyoto was once the country’s capital. In the center of the Kansai region, Kyoto is one of Japan’s most traditional cities. In Kyoto, you’ll find classic dark wood houses and plenty of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. If you are chasing culture and tradition, Kyoto is a great place to explore in Japan.
To experience the traditional streets lined by wooden houses, head to Gion. You can wander in the early morning for the quietest streets or at night to see the cobbled roads lit by paper lanterns. Visiting the many temples of Kyoto is also a must-do on your trip, especially the Golden Pavilion. You can admire the Golden Pavilion from across its pond, being wowed by the golden tint that gives it its name and popularity.
Looking for picturesque scenes? Head to the bamboo forest of Arashiyama or the red columned walkways of the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine. Kyoto is full of stunning scenery and eye-opening cultural attractions. You can read more in our guides on the best places and things to do in Kyoto.
Hiroshima is a name not many forget. Sadly, the reason behind Hiroshima being one of the most famous cities in Japan is the atomic bombing that occurred in 1945. The US dropped an atomic bomb on the large city, causing over 100,000 casualties. Visitors to the city can now pay their respects to the victims and destruction at many memorable attractions, including the Peace Park.
There is much to appreciate about Hiroshima in its own right, though. Food lovers should sample the Japanese pancake, nicknamed Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. There’s also Hiroshima Castle to tour and Shukkei-en scenic garden to stroll. Hiroshima’s culture and history have not been tainted by the tragic atomic bomb, and you’ll love the city’s variety of attractions.
Nagoya is known for manufacturing and shipping and is the capital of the Aichi Prefecture. Have you heard of Honda? Toyota? Mitsubishi? All of these big automotive brands were developed in Nagoya. Nagoya has an innovative, industrial atmosphere, ideal for those wanting to experience the business side of Japan.
Visitors should tour the Toyota Exhibition Hall to get a better idea of automotive production in Japan. Nagoya Castle is great for a historical introduction to Nagoya. There are also one-off events in Nagoya like the Nagoya Sumo Tournament in July, the Nagoya Matsuri festival in October, and the World Cosplay Summit in July and August.
Nagoya has lots going on, so don’t forget to check the city’s schedule. And, in your downtime, make sure to try some miso katsu – miso katsu is a regional specialty.
Looking to visit the real side of Japan? Saitama is a primarily residential city, perfect for getting a quieter experience of Japan. One of the best ways to experience a country is by escaping its main tourist areas. If you prefer this style of travel, Saitama is the place for you. Many residents use Saitama as a commuter town, traveling to Tokyo for work during the week.
So, what’s there to see in Saitama? Hitsujiiyama Park is a gorgeous place to visit and is famed for its carpet-like growth of pink moss. For those who like tasting sessions, you can also take a sake tour around the city – sampling the traditional Japanese alcohol. Saitama is a beautiful place to visit, not too far away from the other major cities but far enough away to escape the constant buzz.
Another of the major cities in Japan is Fukuoka. Fukuoka is famous for its beautiful islands and sits on the coastline, surrounded by gorgeous beaches perfect for a summer getaway. The port city is located in Fukuoka Prefecture. The prefecture capital is popular among young professionals, students, and businesses.
The city’s main attractions are Fukuoka Castle, Kyushu National Museum, and Dazaifu Tenman-gu, a shrine to the god of education. Fukuoka is a definite metropolis. If you love an exciting city atmosphere full of action, bold cuisine, and entertainment, Fukuoka is perfect. It lacks the history of Kyoto and the popularity of Tokyo. Still, if you want a fun ‘second city’, you’ll have a fantastic time.
Nara is most famous for its deer population. If you’ve seen pictures of Nara online, chances are you’ve seen the idyllic temple scenes. The temples are surrounded by green space and Bambi-look-a-likes – cute, we know. Like Kyoto, Nara was also once a capital city. However, now, Nara is better known for its serene atmosphere and regal history.
The top things to do in Nara are to visit Nara Deer Park, Todai-Ji Temple, and Tamukeyama Hachimangu Shrine. You could easily spend a whole day temple-hopping though, and Nara is full of peaceful places for visitors to immerse themselves in Japan’s beautiful culture.
Like Hiroshima, Nagasaki was victim to an atomic bomb in 1945. The devastation was heartbreaking, and visitors can pay their respects today at attractions like the Peace Park. Nagasaki has many other aspects that make it an educational destination though. Nagasaki is one of the largest port cities in Japan and has a long history of trading with Europe.
The result is a fusion of European and Japanese culture and influence. You’ll find Christian sites like Oura Cathedral amongst the collection of stunning shrines and temples. To immerse yourself in the history of Japan’s international relations, you really can’t find a better place.
Then, when you’re ready, you can visit the Atomic Hypocenter Park and Peace Park to discover the darker side of Nagasaki’s history. The city has lots for you to learn.
Do you recognize the name Sapporo? The city of Sapporo just happens to be the namesake (and birthplace) of one of Japan’s most famous beer brands. Sapporo is the capital of the Hokkaido Prefecture and is easily one of the best cities in Japan. Situated on Japan’s Northern Island, Sapporo is well-combined with a visit to Tokyo.
Visitors can tour the Sapporo Beer Museum or ride up to the top of the Sapporo TV Tower. There’s a fantastic mixture of attractions in Sapporo. It has that city buzz, with lots of big-city-style entertainment and tourist infrastructure.
If you can, coincide your visit to Sapporo with the Snow Festival. The winter festival is one of the best in the world, and the winter wonderland spreads 1.5 km – full of ice sculptures, an ice skating rink, and sledding areas.
Kobe is one of Japan’s largest port cities, beginning to overflow with glitzy skyscrapers and modern living. This is not what got Kobe its place in this guide though; its food scene is what makes it stand apart from Japan’s other best cities. Kobe is world famous for its Kobe beef and renowned for its seafood. If you visit Kobe, be prepared to splash out on daily restaurant meals, as its cuisine is too tempting to pass by.
We suggest exploring Kitano Village to see Kobe’s old-school architecture. Of course, if you walk by a steakhouse, be sure to pop in and grab a table for a taste of Kobe beef. Steak Aoyama is a small, family-run steakhouse with an excellent reputation for delicious meals and pretty reasonable prices. Finish your day with a stroll around the harbor, with views of the modern skyline lighting up after dark.
Got a bit of extra time? Hike up Mount Rokko. Mount Rokko overshadows the city as a beautiful but fierce natural landmark. There are a range of route options so take a look at which best suits your fitness and technical abilities.
Nikko is one of the smallest cities in Japan. Situated in the Tochigi Prefecture, Nikko is surrounded by the Japanese Alps. It is one of the most beautiful places to visit in the country – let alone just amongst Japan’s best cities.
You can explore Nikko itself or use the city as a gateway to Nikko National Park. You’ll find temples, monkeys, and natural scenery galore. Nikko is perfect for lovers of the great outdoors. Visitors can easily balance hiking days and outdoor activities with sightseeing in the Nikko city center.
When it comes to things to do in Nikko, the Shinko Bridge is a must. The iconic red bridge is the postcard image of Nikko, and you should add it to even the shortest of itineraries. We also recommend spending at least a day temple hopping. Outside of Nikko, Kegon Falls is fantastic to visit. And, if you get a chance, take a scenic boat tour down the Kinugawa River.
Nikko is beautiful. To get off the beaten track and surround yourself with nature, look no further. Nikko has a serenity that the major cities in Japan just can’t provide. We stayed in a traditional Ryokan in Nikko, and you can read about our experience here.
Matsue is in the Shimane Prefecture on the southwest coast of Japan. The large city is called ‘the water city’, thanks to its location between the sea and Lake Shinji. Mastue is less popular than major cities like Tokyo, but those who stray off the beaten path will be richly rewarded. Matsue is full of feudal history, historical sites, and beautiful scenery.
The best things to do are to visit Matsue Castle, the Adachi Museum of Art, and one of the shrines. The Yaegaki and Miho shrines are both famous for their beauty. While, if you want to embrace the water activities of ‘the water city’, you can take a sunset cruise on Lake Shinji.
Matsue has a relaxing atmosphere and is an excellent summer destination. It is one of the best cities to unwind and learn on the same trip.
Beppu isn’t always included in lists of the best cities in Japan. Sure, Beppu isn’t one of Japan’s major cities. However, it is one of the country’s most exciting places to visit. Beppu is a geologist’s delight and the best destination for hot springs in Japan. If you want a spa getaway or just to experience the natural wonders in Japan, Beppu is worth visiting.
Since Beppu has over 2,000 hot spring sources, you’ll have lots of spa-related things to do in the city. You can choose heated mineral springs or bathe in nutrient-rich heated mud or sand baths. You could even steam your own food over the onsen steam.
Want something totally different? Take a cable car trip up the Beppu Ropeway or visit the Harmonyland theme park. Beppe is one of the best cities in Japan for a short getaway and is definitely worth a space on your itinerary.
There are so many amazing cities in Japan. The country is a treasure trove of fascinating urban scenes, and you’ll find a unique culture, traditions, and delicious food. Whether you want the neon lights of Tokyo or the blue waters of the sea by Fukuoka, you’ll quickly find a city to suit your needs and interests. Besides, all of these cities in Japan are worth visiting.